Name: Riley Downing
Occupation: Singer, songwriter, guitarist
Current Release: Riley Downing's solo debut album, Start it Over, is available now via New West Records.
Recommendations: My recommendation for two pieces of art is the film I mention in this interview, "Alive Inside", as well as the album New Blues & Gospel by Blind Rev Gary Davis.
If you enjoyed this interview with Riley Downing and would like to find out more about his work, his website is the best place to start. You can also find him on Facebook.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started writing probably around the age of 13. Not so much producing but somehow made up a bunch of crazy songs and recorded them. I also hope nobody ever finds a copy of that.
I got my first guitar around that age and didn’t even know how to tune it for a while but still felt compelled to play it and try to write lyrics. I gotta give my dad credit for getting me into various genres and music in general. He always had a stack of CDs in the truck or piles next to his chilling chair where he’d sit and listen to music on the weekends with the headphones on while we were watching TV or doing whatever crazy kids do. After he’d go to bed I’d go put the headphones on and dig through his CDs or listen to whatever he was. It took me to another world and still does and I am forever grateful to be able to go visit it whenever I can.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I try to never forget that all I know is that I don’t know. Also to protect a certain amount of creative innocence if I can and always being open to learning something new.
When I first started singing, all I knew was that I didn’t know how to sing, but that seemed ok as far as the punk rock I was listening to at the time. I probably emulated that the most in the beginning. At the end of the day though, I grew up in the country & around country music, so didn’t feel too strange to fall into everything that comes with that shortly after.
I still had a lot to learn though. Just because you try to sing loud and high like you think you're supposed to doesn’t mean that’s the way you always should. I didn’t even know how to harmonize when I joined my first country band. My bass player Dan Cutler would stay up late showing me a lot of old acapella gospel groups and explaining how it goes.
With my new record, I tried to lean back a little and just sing in almost my talking voice for the sake of comfort when might be playing then live again and not straining myself for a high note that I may or may not hit.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
My sense of Identity is summed up with home, friends, family and just being able to be myself as well as laugh at myself. I guess I was an awkward kid of sorts but have grown into my own skin as I've gotten older.
One piece of advice I randomly got and have never forgotten was when I had to get my first passport picture taken at a Walgreens in New Orleans. I asked the lady after she took the picture if I could take another and she said “No that’s what you look like” haha fair enough. I think about that anytime I feel self conscious and remind myself, that’s just what you look & sound like bud.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
In the beginning, I was soaking up all kinds of music all the time and always showing buddies and discussing as we were learning to try to play and write ourselves. It was pretty primitive but everything was new and a lot of fun to just try. It was also frustrating because we couldn’t just play and write like the musicians we admired. Though we had to teach ourselves by trial and error we wouldn’t be deterred and that feeling is still in there.
I still have a good group of old friends that pass new and old music back and forth to as well as show a new tune. Good or bad they will give it to me straight as well as some constructive criticism if need be. Which I appreciate and try to consciously share as well.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
I am a bit late to the party as far as current technology goes but I'm trying to catch up. I watched a lot of friends set up little home studios over the pandemic in order to share and work on demos from home. I am still in the dark ages a bit though.
My first time ever recording as a kid was actually on an old VHS tape recorder. I knew how the red and white audio cables worked and would hook the VHS recorder up to a CD burner or tape deck and transfer the audio. I know this sounds crazy but that was just the first way I figured it out before I realized my boom box had a built-in mic.
Then came the digital 8 track recorder which I still use today. I like the simplicity of it and don’t have to overthink while am using. Kind of like how would rather write out a song scribbled out all over a bunch of pieces of paper rather than typing into a phone or computer.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
I have primarily stuck to just chunking or finger picking on the old acoustic guitar since sold my electric guitar long ago as well as playing harmonica mostly because not good at soloing. But if anybody profoundly changed and questioned the way I play music it has been my friends. Especially the time I spent down in New Orleans. I got to watch all kinds of amazing bands and acts play an array of Instruments that I never imagined I would ever see or hear. Anything from one ol boy playing the Fotdella an instrument invented by Jesse Fuller on Frenchman street to a super band that might have 50 different musicians all busking at once to raise money for somebody in need.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
With this last record Start it Over during the pandemic it was huge and honestly the record couldn’t have been made without sharing ideas and lyrics back and forth with John James Tourville and Andrija Tokic from our different home states. We’re all old friends that have worked and even lived together at one point or another over the years so it was easy to respect each other’s opinion and judgement as well as to just get along. My favorite way is to just sit in a shed or on a porch and shoot lines and ideas back and forth with some old buddies over couple cold drinks though.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
It’s hard to say – hardly any day in my life is ever the same. I travel a lot and do all kinds of different odd jobs as well as music and have for many years now. I can always spot a good moment to sit down with my thoughts though or write kinda like I am doing right now answering these questions. The temperature has got to be just right. I know I can’t control the weather though so I try to be patient and wait for moments like this and enjoy them and whatever I’m working on.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
One of the biggest moments and honors was probably the first year we got to play Jazz Fest down in New Orleans. After years of being a band and going all over the US it felt like had finally paid enough dues to be on the big stage. It felt good to be shown that kind of love back by the city that we loved, lived and worked in so much.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Like I said a little bit ago the temperature has got to just feel right. If I have to strategize to get there I will take a big travel mug of coffee and a couple beers out to the shed where I can kinda tune out from everybody. I try to be open to the idea that even if don’t get a lot done I still did something - even if just getting the smallest amount of work done will bring you back for more with hopes that you will do more.
I like to write in the morning but really like to sing late at night when I might feel a little loser or have been excited to sit down and do all day after work. My only distractions are probably just friends and dogs but I don’t mind putting the pen and guitar down for a min then coming back fresh.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I think everybody has used music as a healing tool. Wether it be writing to process a feeling or just listening and letting somebody else help you through that moment. It can also be said in reverse where your writing to preserve a good memory or a song may be associated with that memory or person and helps you hold onto it or them. I do this for myself and hope that somebody else out there may need the same. You never know what somebody is going through.
The biggest need and potential I can see music being used for healing is with the elderly. I have seen it help them reconnect the dots when memory can be fleeting. Even if it’s only for a moment it is huge to see and remind them they are still in there as well as a song they have heard there whole lives. The documentary Alive Inside is a really good example of this and what could should be done.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
This line will always be walked and unfortunately crossed. I like to believe we all know right from wrong and how to be respectful of each other. Even if a group of ignorant people want to argue about it or not take responsibility somewhere deep in there conscious I think they know better. We should always give credit where credit is due and stand up for, protect and celebrate contributions to the arts by all. It takes all shapes, sexes,sizes, colors and dialects to make sound and the world go round.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
I would have to say sight for me. Once you see a band perform live you will always associate that experience with their music. As well as the vibrations and sound waves you might get a special feeling from the music that only comes from a live event.
Smells and flavors can crossover as well from BBQ to sunscreen at an outdoor festival in the summer or the old moldy beer smell that exists in basements all over the US that have hosted hundreds of bands and memorable nights in the DIY scene.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Art as a purpose to me is to just keep doing it and to teach, listen and cheer each other on. My approach is to try and stay as human and humble as can be. I don’t want to be on a pedi stool overlooking anybody or feeling like I am any more creative than they might be. I want to keep my feet on the ground and stand with everybody else and admire and discuss art.
To strictly be an artist is a privilege that honestly I do not understand. I know so many who are more than a painter,songwriter or film maker. They are brothers, sisters,mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, grandparents and friends that all work hard at theircraft and their jobs and duties as fellow humans. I hope they continue to do it just because they live it same as they love others and life itself.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Life is its own rhythm. Sometime in perfect harmony and other moments way out of tune and time. But it all has a purpose and plays its part which everybody contributes to. Knowingly or not. We all have moments where we sit and just listen.
I am currently in a van with my band listening to the wind howl and hum of low radio as we drive through Alabama but nobody is saying anything because we don’t need to this very moment. We are not thinking of death though we all are very aware of it we are enjoying life and nothing else needs to be said at the moment. We are all in tune.